One, two, three strikes — and Canada is out!

History: The Winnipeg General Strike of 1919, Part Two

The workers of Canada united behind strikers in Winnipeg, leading to the largest labour action in Canadian history and a class division that continues to create friction and distrust 100 years on.

This is Part Two of my three part blog on the momentous Winnipeg General Strike that unfolded 100 years ago, striking terror into the hearts of the ruling class. It covers the astounding wave of spontaneous strikes by Canadian workers near and far for the 30,000 striking workers in Winnipeg who began their strike on May 15, 1919.

By Rod Mickleburgh

In addition to everything else that is remarkable about the Winnipeg General Strike, one aspect inexplicably ignored by most chroniclers is the extraordinary support the strike received from other workers across the country. Sympathy strikes of various lengths and success took place in Victoria, Vancouver, New Westminster, Prince Rupert the Kootenays, Edmonton, Calgary, Lethbridge, Moose Jaw, Regina, Saskatoon, Prince Albert, Brandon, Fort Willliam, Port Arthur, Toronto, Montreal and maybe best of all, in the small, far-off industrial city of Amherst, Nova Scotia.

As a fun fact, Amherst was also the place where Leon Trotsky was temporarily imprisoned on his way back to Russia to lead the revolution. Workers there were as radical a bunch as any in North America. The Amherst Federation of Labour voted 1,185 to 1 (who was that guy?) to join the western-based One Big Union, even before the radical organization had been formally established. They campaigned successfully against the introduction of daylight saving time as a capitalist plot to lengthen the working day. In May, stirred by the Winnipeg General Strike, several thousand Amherst workers at the city’s eight largest industries walked off the job for three weeks. Their demands were the same as workers in Winnipeg: shorter hours, better pay and the right to collective bargaining.

The biggest of all the sympathy strikes took place here in Vancouver. More than 10,000 workers walked out on June 3, after the firing of Winnipeg’s postal workers. Confined mostly to the private sector, most of the 37 participating unions stayed out for a full month. They did not return to work until a week after the Winnipeg strike ended. While much is written and celebrated about the one-day Ginger Goodwin general strike the previous year, there’s been barely a peep on the city’s worker revolt nine months later.

The biggest of all the sympathy strikes took place here in Vancouver. More than 10,000 workers walked out on June 3, after the firing of Winnipeg’s postal workers.

The striking unions had their own set of demands: reinstatement of the postal workers; immediate settlement of the grievances in Winnipeg; the right to collective bargaining; pensions for WW I veterans and their dependents; $2,000 for all who served overseas; nationalization of cold storage plants, abattoirs and, naturally, elevators; and the six-hour day.

The strike was strongest on the docks, where stevedores, sailors and other marine workers united to force all maritime shipping that came into port to tie up. A seaman named Jimmy O’Donnell has left us with a rare eye-witness account of the strike and his own experience during its last few days.

“It was the time of the Winnipeg Strike and everyone went out in sympathy. The sailors and the mess boys and firemen,” O’Donnell told an interviewer sometime in the 1970’s. “So when we come into Vancouver, the skipper said, ‘Don’t go ashore.’ And I said I gotta go ashore. I gotta go to the union hall and report in. I got my union button on and I went up to the union hall and say that I just come in. What do I do?

“And the guy says to get my stuff off, there’s a strike on. So I walk out and this little Cockney guy comes running up to me and says, ‘Waddya doing with that button on?’ I say that I belong to the sailors’ union. He says, ‘Don’t you know there’s a strike on?’ I said, ‘Yeah.” And he says, ‘Where you going? You gonna cross the picket line?’ And I said ‘Yeah. I’m going to the [ship]. We just been in last night and I’m gonna take my stuff off. I’m gonna go on strike with you.’ Two days later, the strike was over and I lost my job.”

After intense pressure from other unions, streetcar operators, who initially voted against the strike, went out on June 5. This sparked a fierce confrontation with city hall and the business community, who immediately sanctioned fleets of small buses known as jitneys to pick up fare-paying passengers. Labelling them “legalized scabs”, the strike committee warned the city that they would call telephone operators out on strike if the jitneys kept running. The warning was ignored.

So, on June 14, after locking the doors and dropping keys through the windows of BC Telephone headquarters on Seymour Street, 300 unionized “hello girls” and some of their supervisors joined the general strike. The phone company recruited strikebreakers, many of them high-society matrons, to keep the phones operating. But there was no wavering in the operators’ resolve, despite the financial pinch. “My landlady didn’t come looking for rent money. She kept me going,” operator Leone Copeland told the BC Federationist. “I was pretty close to brass tacks. Most of us who stayed out couldn’t afford to stay out, but we did.”

Winnipeg General strike phone operators

Vancouver matrons crossed picket lines to become phone operators during the Winnipeg General Strike.

(I love this cartoon, deriding the women who took the jobs of the striking telephone operators. Note the cat calling the woman’s high-society cat a “Scab”. )

Not only did they stay out, the telephone operators did so for another 13 days after the official Vancouver strike ended. They held out in a noble but ultimately failed attempt to prevent supervisors who joined them on strike from being disciplined. They were the last sympathy strikers in the country to go back to work. “The action of the telephone girls in responding to the call for a general strike has placed them in a class by themselves amongst all women workers in this province,” lauded the BC Federationist. “They have won the admiration of all those who admire grit and working class solidarity.”

“The action of the telephone girls in responding to the call for a general strike has placed them in a class by themselves amongst all women workers in this province,” lauded the BC Federationist. “They have won the admiration of all those who admire grit and working class solidarity.”

Another unusual feature of Vancouver’s general strike involved the International Typographical Union. Rather than strike, union printers set up a censorship board, warning city papers that if they deliberately misrepresented facts or failed to fairly represent the strikers’ views, they would face job action. Sure enough, the Vancouver Sun was shut down for five days over its anti-union diatribes. The last straw was an editorial referring to the martyred Ginger Goodwin as “a dead poltroon” (an utter coward). “Had the wretched creatures responsible for that outbreak (the one-day Goodwin walkout) been imprisoned, as they deserved,” the editorial continued, “the city would probably have been spared the effort being made today by the revolutionary element to impose its will upon the community.” “The Vancouver Province lost one edition because of an anti-strike ad that ITU members refused to print.

Rather than strike, union printers set up a censorship board, warning city papers that if they deliberately misrepresented facts or failed to fairly represent the strikers’ views, they would face job action. Sure enough, the Vancouver Sun was shut down for five days over its anti-union diatribes.

All in all, it was an exceptional display of support by the Vancouver working class for the Winnipeg strike, considering that the initial vote in favour was a far from overwhelming 3,305 to 2,499. Labour historian Elaine Bernard suggest it was even more radical than the Winnipeg General Strike, itself. “While the Winnipeg strikers were supporting workers engaged in a struggle with the local captains of industry, the Vancouver strike was remarkable in that it was motivated by solidarity for workers more than a thousand miles away,” she wrote.

While the Winnipeg strikers were supporting workers engaged in a struggle with the local captains of industry, the Vancouver strike was remarkable in that it was motivated by solidarity for workers more than a thousand miles away…

They were far from alone.

In the British Empire outpost of Victoria, a split between radical and moderate union leaders prompted weeks of dithering. After the arrest of Winnipeg strike leaders and the violent “Bloody Saturday” crackdown by police and military, however, there was no holding back. On the morning of June 23, 70 per cent of the city’s 7,000 workforce – longshoremen, machinists, boilermakers, caulkers, factory workers and tradesmen – walked out. Virtually all industrial activity came to a halt — shipyards, the waterfront, marine traffic and machine shops. On June 26, the day Winnipeg workers returned to work, a mass public meeting of strikers at Royal Athletic Park voted overwhelmingly to go back the next day, bringing staid Victoria’s one and only general strike to an end.

Far up the coast in Prince Rupert, the spirit of solidarity with Winnipeg was also strong. But, like Victoria, it was not without division. Votes went back and forth. Job action was initially confined to the Grand Trunk Railway and the docks. Those off the job became increasingly angry at the reluctance of other unions to support an all-out strike. Finally, the Labour Council’s George Casey called a meeting June 8 to hold a final, once-and-for all vote. To make sure of their commitment, he ordained that the vote had to pass by a two-thirds majority.

At the highly-charged mass meeting at the Carpenters Hall, Casey, a fiery, charismatic speaker from the Fish Packers’ Union who subsequently spent 23 years on city council, declared in ringing tones that the workers of Prince Rupert “had a duty to organized labour and workers in general throughout the whole dominion.” When the ballots were counted, the vote in favour was 345 to 170, just making the mandated two-thirds majority. When American leaders of some unions ordered their members to stay on the job, the Labour Council’s Ralph Rose tore a strip off recalcitrant unions who “[expressed] themselves in favour of the strike, but when it was put to them, refused to come out”.

Prince Rupert’s general strike began at dawn, June 10. Nine industrial unions went out– dock workers, loggers, boilermakers, machinists, pipe-fitters, railway checkers (not a game, apparently), freight handlers and fish packers. Despite the usual pressure from the business community, foaming at the mouth about violence and Reds under the bed, they stuck it out to the end of the Winnipeg General Strike. And then beyond.

The strike committee refused to recommend a return to work, until 10 workers fired by the Grand Trunk Railway were reinstated. The pledge was strongly supported at another overflow gathering. “We will stick it out until we are starved out and become busted and have to leave town,” roared George Casey. This time, the emotional principle of protecting fellow workers’ jobs spurred all unions to rally to the cause. An expanded walkout was set to begin July 4 at 6 p.m. The pressure worked. Just 30 minutes before the deadline, the strike committee announced “as good [a deal] as we can expect under the circumstances.” Even so, the Labour Council voted only 15-12 to accept. (This account relies largely on original research by Donna Sacuta of the BC Labour Heritage Centre.)

In Edmonton (Edmonton!), thousands of union members were off the job for a month. City hall closed, trains and streetcars stopped running. Most utilities, including the telephone system, shut down, along with factories, packing houses, cold storage plants, shops and restaurants. Workers at Chinese restaurants and laundries courageously risked deportation to walk out. Police voted 74-4 to strike, although, as in Winnipeg, they stayed on the job.

In Edmonton (Edmonton!), thousands of union members were off the job for a month. City hall closed, trains and streetcars stopped running. Most utilities, including the telephone system, shut down, along with factories, packing houses, cold storage plants, shops and restaurants. Workers at Chinese restaurants and laundries courageously risked deportation to walk out.

City Mayor Joe Clarke was sympathetic. He refused requests from the Board of Trade and the inevitable “citizen’s committee” to call in the militia. He further vowed the city would not allow strikebreakers. When he was accused of being a dupe of the “Bolshevik” strike committee, the mayor retorted that he would not be forced to break the strike “by the Bolsheviks on the Board of Trade”. Although the strike wavered as June progressed, some unions stuck it out until the Winnipeg General Strike was called off.

In Brandon, Manitoba hundreds of workers stayed on strike for six weeks. Their ranks included civic employees who had just won their own strike, yet came out again to protest anti-strike crackdowns in Winnipeg. Other strikes were briefer but no less heartfelt, as workers took up the cry to fight back. The defiant words of Jean MacWilliams, a laundry worker and organizer in Calgary, could have echoed anywhere: “Are we in favour of a bloody revolution? Why any kind of revolution would be better than conditions as they are now.”

“Are we in favour of a bloody revolution? Why any kind of revolution would be better than conditions as they are now.”

It was a time of unsurpassed working class consciousness and resistance, the likes of which Canada had never seen, before or since. Few demands were achieved, but the Winnipeg General Strike had a profound influence on events to come. That will be covered in Part Three, The Aftermath.

To read part one, click here. 

@rodmickleburgh

THE EX-PRESS, June 2, 2019

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